Here is the sermon I preached at the recent wedding of Alex and Greg Tedford, minus the introduction. I was really happy to be asked to preach evangelistically at their wedding, and they gave me the passage: Matthew 7:24-29.
I’d like to introduce you to two men. They are called Eric and Ernie: Eric Fool and Ernie Wise. Ernie wanted to build a new house. He had just floated his Internet Company on the stock market and made millions. He was a happy man. So he built a huge house with a swimming pool, helipad and nine-hole golf course. He was living in the lap of luxury. Eric had also had a lucky break. He’d just won the National Lottery. Eric’s house was just as glamorous as Ernie’s down the road – it also included a swimming pool, a helipad and nine-hole golf course. In fact, Ernie and Eric were pretty much identical. They had the same lifestyle and built the same houses in the same location.
But then one night a huge storm broke out. It was the most ferocious in living memory – much greater than anything we’ve seen in Britain this summer – and it caused a torrent of water to wash down the valley and hit both houses full on. But when the storm had eased and morning broke, the two houses could not have been more different. Ernie Wise’s house was still intact. Sure, there was a bit of flood damage on the walls, and the golf course would have to be redone, but apart from that the house was fine. Next door, however, was nowhere to be seen. Eric Fool’s house had completely disappeared. All that was left was the remnants of the tennis court and a couple of bottles of Pinot Grigio floating down the stream. And the reason? Ernie Wise had asked a surveyor for advice. The surveyor had told him to dig deep foundations since that area was sometimes liable to flooding. Ernie’s house was built on a solid foundation. Eric didn’t bother. He’d heard the surveyor’s advice, but thought that it was a bit extreme. He thought that the storm and flood would never come. But they did. And his house came down with a crash.
What I’ve just done is retell a story that Jesus of Nazareth told on a mountain in Galilee nearly two thousand years ago. It’s a famous story – in fact, if we’re to be technical, it’s a famous parable: a story with a point. So what’s the big point of Jesus’ story? It’s not so much architectural advice that Jesus is giving here as making a more profound point: a house is only as strong and as good as its foundations. A house is only as good as its foundations. And I guess that seems like good advice. We’re all aware of things which have looked strong, but have proved to be built on a flimsy basis. But Jesus’ application of this principle is, perhaps, surprising. Listen to how our reading started: ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man.’
And so, here’s the shock: Jesus says that a wise person makes sure that they have got good foundations – but secondly, that he is one whose teaching provides just that sort of firm foundation for the wise person. In other words, Jesus is saying that his words are, when put into practice, a solid foundation that will last when the storms come. But he’s also saying that it’s possible to miss out, to be foolish – to hear his words and ignore them. Like the foolish man in the story, the advice goes in one ear and out of the other. And so Jesus says: you are wise if you listen to my words and put them into practice. They provide a foundation for life.
Well, we’d certainly have to admit that Jesus’ words caused ripples of effect when the original audience heard them. When the crowd hear this teaching, they are amazed because, as our text says, Jesus ‘taught as one who had authority, and not as the teachers of the law’. We can perhaps miss the significance of this phrase. The context is this. In Jesus’ day – and ever since then – Jewish teachers have taught by starting with pieces of the Old Testament and discussing what great teachers have made of them. Teaching becomes a matter of laying out what other people have said, rather than any individual teacher offering their own new line of interpretation. The teachers hid behind the great rabbis of the past and claimed no authority of their own. But Jesus didn’t teach like that. He never hid behind anybody else’s authority. He claimed authority of his own. He didn’t speak about the great heroes of Israel’s past. Read any of Jesus’ teaching and you’ll see that he is shockingly blunt: this, he says, is what I say to you. Never mind what you’ve heard elsewhere. What I have to say trumps all of that. I speak the truth. Or, as we read in our passage, if you listen to my words and put them into practice, you are wise. If you do not, then you are foolish.
We’d certainly have to say that Jesus’ words rattle our 21st Century cages. We’re perhaps not used to people speaking as plainly about the truth as Jesus does. We’ve grown used to the idea that each of us only has a slice of perspective on reality and so we’ve grown wary of telling people how to live.
But the difference with Jesus is his perspective: he claimed to be God in human form, and the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be telling the truth in this claim. The church was founded on this premise. And so as God in human form, Jesus claimed to speak with unique authority. He speaks as though he alone has a God’s eye view of the universe. I guess I could stand here and give advice on how to make your marriage work, but I've only been married 12 weeks - I've not yet got much experience! I guess we could turn to people here that have been married for thirty, forty or even fifty years. But even their insight falls short of that of Jesus. As God, he uniquely is best placed to tell us how to live. That’s how Jesus could say that a person is a fool if they ignore what he has to say, and wise if he puts it into practice. And even those of us here today who aren’t Christians would surely agree that, if Jesus is God in human form, then he’s got to be worth listening to.
Well, what would it mean for us to listen to Jesus? Well, firstly to Alex and Greg, the people of the moment, I’d like to say this: I hope that there are three in your marriage. Not in the Princess Diana kind of way (!); rather, I hope that you’ll work hard to include Jesus in your marriage. The Bible’s teaching is that marriage is not merely a human institution made up by people, but is something invented by God. Just as things work best when we follow the manufacturers’ instructions, so marriage works best when we follow God’s instructions and put them into place. And so Jesus, the God-man, had plenty to say on marriage and how people should treat each other.
Alex and Greg – I hope that you’ll spend time in your married life soaking up Jesus’ teaching. You’ll read of how marriage functions best when you put each others’ needs before your own; you’ll read of how important it is to forgive each other quickly when you’ve been wronged; you’ll read of the husband’s responsibility to love and honour his wife, and the wife’s responsibility to submit to her husband’s leadership of the marriage. And I hope you won’t just listen to Jesus on this, but that you’ll put what he says into practice. If you do so, then your marriage will have strong foundations.
But there’s a second application here to all of us. It’s true that Jesus’ words provide a foundation for life. The storms are certainly those things which happen to us during everyday life. We can get through them trusting in Jesus. But more importantly, and this is to what Jesus alludes to here: putting Jesus’ words into practice sees us through the ultimate storm of death. If we have taken Jesus seriously and followed him then God’s judgement on our lives is nothing to fear. See Jesus wasn’t just a spin-doctor. He didn’t just come to talk. Read on in one of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible and you’ll find that Jesus didn’t just come to meet with his friends, but to die for his enemies. Through his death upon the cross, Jesus the God-man, took the punishment that we deserve for rebelling against God, so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God. And Jesus promises that this forgiveness is open to everyone, regardless of what you are live and what you have done. All that you must do is agree with the diagnosis that Jesus makes of your life – that you need God forgiveness, made possible through his death on the cross – and turn to him. That’s what both Greg and Alex have done. They’ve listened to Jesus’ diagnosis and they have realised that only his death provides a cure.
So how will you respond? Will you give Jesus a fair hearing? Build on his words and you build for eternity. Ignore them, and you ignore Jesus at your peril. Realise that whilst you consider Jesus’ diagnosis a bit extreme that you are in peril. And so I know that the best wedding present that you could give Greg and Alex today is to commit to giving Jesus a fair try. It’s why they asked me to speak of this passage today. It’s the forgiveness that Jesus offers that both Greg and Alex have found, and is set to be the bedrock and foundation of their married life.
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